National Obituary of Judge Parker

This obituary of Judge Parker by the national legal journal, The American Law Review, printed in early 1897 provides a glimpse into how the judge was seen by his peers in the legal profession. Please note that the statistics regarding the number of cases, convictions, and executions contain a number of errors.

The Death of Hon. Isaac C. Parker, Judge of the United States District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, removes one of the most remarkable and unique figures that ever sat upon the Federal bench. It took place on the 17th of November, at his home in Fort Smith, Ark., from a disease of the heart. For nearly a quarter of a century he had presided as sole judge in that court. It was a frontier court and had a very peculiar criminal jurisdiction, embracing all crimes committed in the adjacent Indian Territory by Indians against white persons, by white persons against Indians, or by white persons against each other. It did not extend to crimes committed by Indians among themselves. Exercising a jurisdiction over a territory characterized by great outlawry, largely promoted by the mingling of the two races therein, the duties which his position called upon him to discharge required the possession of a strong mind, a courageous breast, and a firm hand. Criminal justice was vigorously executed in his court; and his conduct did not escape animadversion and libelous diatribes, originating in the minds and breasts of the lawyers who habitually figured there as defenders of criminals. One of these libels was that Judge Parker had boasted that he would advance his record to one hundred executions before retiring from the bench. It is almost needless to say that he never made such a boast, nor anything like it. The story was coined out of pure malice. But the fact that, during the period of his administration of the office, eighty-nine persons were executed under sentences passed in his court, gave a certain currency to the story. Within recent years a change took place under which his decisions were reviewed by the Supreme Court of the United States on writ of error. A good many of them were reversed on technical grounds; and perhaps the history of these reversals will illustrate, as well as anything else, the manner in which the execution of the criminal laws throughout portions of our country is hampered by judicial casuistry in the appellate benches. The following, which we take from the Encyclopedia of the Southwest is a sketch of the career of this remarkable man:-

The history of the Parker family is not easily traced. The ancestors came from England, settled in Massachusetts and spread West. Isaac C. Parker was born in Belmont County, Ohio, October 15th, 1838. His father, Joseph Parker, was a farmer and a man of remarkable energy, strict in domestic discipline, but mild and persuasive in his methods. He moved to Ohio, where he was married. He died in that state in 1879, aged 1866. His mother, Jane Shannon, was a native of Belmont County, Ohio, and was the daughter of John Shannon. She was a woman remarkable for her strong mental qualities and business habits, possessing great force of character. She was a member of the Methodist church, and her son, who has attained distinction, attributes his success mainly to her influence and training. She died October 18, 1870.
Isaac attended school when not actively employed on the farm, and rapidly acquired a knowledge of fundamental principles. These advantages he improved by private study and application, becoming thoroughly versed in the English branches. At the age of sixteen he had resolved to study law, and at the age of seventeen he taught school as the means of accomplishing his purpose. He was ambitious to work out his destiny, unaided by others. For four years he alternately attended Barnesville Academy and taught school. He was fond of disputation, though very young, and took part in the discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska question, then the absorbing topic of political and social circles.
In 1859 Mr. Parker began the practice of law at St. Joseph, Missouri, where he continued to reside and labor for fourteen years. He soon made friends and a professional reputation, and from April 1861, to April 1864, he was City Attorney of St. Joseph. Notwithstanding his official position, he was in the militia service of the State, under General Rosecrans and Curtis, department commanders, from September 1861, till the winter of 1864. He was in no battle of note, though he took part in several skirmishes. During the greater part of his time he was detailed as assistant provost marshal of St. Joseph. At the election in November 1864, he was chosen a presidential elector on the Republican ticket and cast his vote for Mr. Lincoln for President. At the same election he was chosen State's Attorney for the Ninth Judicial Circuit, and held the office until September 1861 [sic]. In November 1868, he was elected Circuit Judge of the Ninth Judicial Circuit for a term of six years; but having been nominated for Congress in 1870, and considering it indelicate to hold the office of Judge while canvassing for a political position, he resigned his place in September of that year, and in the following November was elected to represent his district in the Forty-second Congress. Two years afterwards he was elected to the Forty-third Congress. During his first term he was a member of the committee on Territories and chairman of the committee on Expenditures in the Navy department.
Although the legislature redistricted the State and made his district three thousand Democratic, yet Judge Parker was re-elected in 1872 by a majority of one hundred and forty-three. In the Forty-third Congress he was a member of the committee on Appropriations. While in Congress, Judge Parker succeeded in carrying all his local measures; engineered the Indian Appropriation Bill, and made considerable reputation as advocate of a peace measure in solving the Indian problem. Time has demonstrated the wisdom of this policy, as the succeeding administration adopted it.
In 1875, President Grant nominated Judge Parker to be Chief Justice of Utah, and he was confirmed by the Senate, but he declined the position at the request of President Grant to accept that of United States District Judge for the Western District of Arkansas, a life appointment, which he held up to the time of his death. His jurisdiction extended over a part of Arkansas and the entire Indian Territory, involving a large area and an immense amount of work, perhaps more than any other judge in the Union is required to undergo.
Judge Parker was a member of the order of Odd Fellows, and also of the Knights of Honor. He was reared in the Democratic faith and voted the Democratic ticket until the breaking out of the Rebellion, when he became a Republican and so remained. Being a Northern man, he naturally drifted into the Republican party as a Union man. He was a believer in the doctrines of the Christian religion, though not connected with any religious denomination.

Originally published in The American Law Review, Vol. XXXI, January-February 1897, pages 115-117.


Last updated: April 10, 2015

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